Greece: There’s laughter in hell

27 September 2011
Süddeutsche Zeitung Munich

"We go to the cafe. It's the last thing we have" - an Athenian teacher
"We go to the cafe. It's the last thing we have" - an Athenian teacher

Many Greeks feel their future has been stolen from them. But who is to blame? One writes a letter to Angela Merkel, another wants his people to embrace virtue. A report from Athens, where the laughter comes from desperation. Excerpts.

She laughs. They do still exist, people who sit in the cafes and laugh. A lot of cafes are even full. Visiting one is an act of rebellion against these days, days that are all mad, against this morning, as the café-goers open their eyes to peer a little bit further ahead into the tunnel and feel the panic rising.

Sitting by their espressos and glasses of water, often for hours on end, they gaze out over a city that is increasingly alien to them, out over a land that eludes them. “You Germans go into the forest to collect mushrooms,” says Ersi Georgiadou. “We head to the cafe. It’s the last thing we have.”

Ersi Georgiadou knows the Germans. She teaches their language to her fellow Greeks. Teaching also used to be easier. This September there were no textbooks at the start of the school year. The students were given a CD, from which they now must print out or copy the first chapter. Ersi Georgiadou takes her head in her hands and laughs. It’s also an act of desperation.

She must live with the knowledge that, in the eyes of the whole world – in the eyes of the Germans – the Greeks have all been lumped together as lazy thieves. And that the part of the Greek people who actually committed the theft have also stolen the country’s future. “We don’t know what will happen next week,” she says. “All we think about is tomorrow. We all just talk about survival.” Wednesday is payday. The teacher does not know yet how much of her salary she will get.

Suicide rate

An incompetent government that runs around in a panic – without a goal, as most believe – alongside thieves and con artists who have still not been held accountable. Ersi Georgiadou laughs again and tells of the island of Zakynthos, where one in five residents is registered as blind. Medically that would be amazing – yet it may have something to do with the lucrative disability benefits for the blind. The government has now sent eye doctors to the island to investigate the phenomenon. Meanwhile, Ersi Georgiadou has begun to hoard food – oil, rice, honey. “But I do try to wear rose-colored glasses.” At some point it will eventually all be over. “In ten or 15 years, perhaps? Or?”

Something has to give. Some emigrate, others are getting the anger out of their system by protesting, others are killing themselves. Suicide was always a taboo in this society,which has always been firmly in the grip of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The official suicide figures are still underreported – families are ashamed to admit suicides in their midst. “We Greeks are not really a depressive people," says the psychologist Aris Violatzis. “We’re loud and extroverted. We never did have many suicides. But today we have the highest jump in the suicide rate in the world.”

Social or economic circumstances are often the trigger in the end, says the psychologist. That’s why he sees an obligation for the government. “These people do not want to die. They want to kill their pain. Here is where our responsibility begins.”

A silver lining

Aris Violatzis also has a message for the Europeans. “Demonising Greece is ludicrous. The Europeans are panicking and they’re saying: ‘Let’s burn a witch, so the rest of us will be cleansed’. But is it really little Greece with its population of ten million that has brought down all this financial chaos? This is a witch hunt.”

Others prefer to point the finger at themselves. One such is Costas Bakouris of Transparency International, who was once a successful entrepreneur. “As individuals, we have great talent. But collectively we’re a full-blown disaster,” he says of the Greeks. “Our values ​​must change.” There is some good news, however. Tourism is booming, and the export sector has grown by more than ten percent. And in 2010, for the first time, there was less bribery in Greece. “It's a start.”

Others do not wish to recognise this silver lining. “It’s a question of dignity,” says Thanos Tzimeros. Thanos Tzimeros has done what he had to do. He wrote a letter to Angela Merkel, of all people, to the German Chancellor who has been demonised in much of the Greek media. His letter is a diatribe – and a cry for help. It talks of “obscene transactions,” of an “orgy of illegality” – and of course, of the “biggest law-breaker”, the Greek state itself.

Tzimeros demands that the Europeans refuse to give his native land one penny more so long as European inspectors are not permanently in place to ensure that all promises of reform are being kept. The Germans should see to this themselves. Thanos Tzimeros now wants to start a new political party.

To be or not to be

And how is the sense of humour doing in hell? There, where the sinners lie shackled to the rack on all fours, and the ropes are screwed tighter millimetre by millimetre, and one can only wait for the big bang that will tear all one’s limbs off at the end? “Precisely!” says the writer and director Michalis Repas. Oh, really? And so how are the times for comedians? The answer comes as if shot from a gun: “The best”. An echo follows from co-author Thanasis Papathanasiou: “Yes, the best”.

The pair are well-known theatre producers and film makers, and they have written a piece titled Raus, in German. “Get out” tells the story of a brothel owner who registers his establishment with the EU as a cultural institution, and of the German inspector who is sent to Athens to check up on where the funds are ending up. Why a German? “They're so strict,” one of them says. “And forbidding,” says the other. “Raus” is now into its second year.

The two are not just after cheap laughs. They have political minds that try even in their comedies to put every new specimen of world-conquerers under the microscope, specimens of humanity they call “the greedy people.”

Who in the end, out of greed, consume themselves. Repas and Papathanasiou are convinced Europeans and therefore see nothing wrong at the moment in working off their frustrations on the cheerfully hated Germans. Their new play is an adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch's anti-Nazi farce “To Be or Not to Be.”

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